In 2008, school officials in Basel, Switzerland, ordered a Muslim couple to enroll their daughters in a mandatory swimming class, despite the parents’ objections to having their girls learn alongside boys. The officials offered the couple some accommodations: The girls, 9 and 7 at the time, could wear body-covering swimsuits, known as burkinis, during the swimming lessons, and they could undress for the class without any boys present. But the parents refused to send their daughters to the lessons, and in 2010, the officials imposed a fine of 1,400 Swiss francs, about £1,100. The parents, Aziz Osmanoglu and Sehabat Kocabas, who have both Swiss and Turkish nationality, decided to sue.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Swiss officials’ decision, rejecting the parents’ argument that the Swiss authorities had violated the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which the court enforces. “The public interest in following the full school curriculum should prevail over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters,” the court found. The case was the latest to pit freedom of religion against the imperative of social integration, and to raise the question of whether — and how much — a government should accommodate the religious views of Muslim citizens and residents, many of them immigrants.
The ruling could set an important precedent in other cases in which religious and secular values or norms come into conflict. The decision comes as Europe has been struggling to integrate migrants, many from majority-Muslim countries where religious and social mores, particularly around gender and sexuality, can be at odds with liberal and secular norms of the societies where they have sought refuge. Far-right political parties with anti-immigrant bents, from the National Front in France to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark and the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland, have argued that too many Muslims have not managed to assimilate.
In May, the authorities in the canton of Basel-Landschaft — which is next to the canton of Basel-Stadt, where the swimming case occurred — ruled that two Syrian immigrant brothers, who studied at a public school in the small town of Therwil, could not refuse to shake their teacher’s hand on religious grounds. Their refusal to do so had provoked a national uproar. The challenge of integrating immigrants has spilled over into culture, and, at times, helped fan a simmering culture war. In Denmark, pork meatballs and other pork dishes that are popular staples became part of a debate on national identity last year after the central Danish town of Randers voted in January to require public day care centres and kindergartens to include the meat on their lunch menus. Supporters of the proposal said that serving traditional Danish food such as pork was essential to help preserve national identity. Critics said the proposal did nothing more than stigmatize Muslims, who had made no attempts to ban pork from school menus.
In Switzerland, politicians and civic groups across the political spectrum welcomed the ruling, calling it an important validation of the supremacy of secularism and the rule of law, even as some Muslims complained that it reflected growing intolerance for religious minorities. “The swimming pool verdict unfortunately is what we expected,” Qaasim Illi, a board member of the Swiss Central Islamic Council, wrote on Twitter. “Tolerance toward the religious is diminishing throughout Europe.”
Fortunately no one was dressed in a burka or a burkini last night, so there will probably not be any dispute going to the European Court; however 12 full Tables did turn up to contest our regular Club Night at the Oxshott Bridge Club. You can read all about it in the Report by clicking on the "Competitions" tab in the Menu to the left of this box. Alternatively you can study the full Leaderboard and the individual Travellers by clicking on the "Latest Result" button at the top right of this page.